Greg Pierce made waves in 2012 after his play Slowgirl, the inaugural show at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre, opened to enthusiastic reviews. Unknown to most theatergoers at the time, Pierce was also at work on a new musical with John Kander, the celebrated composer of Cabaret, Chicago, and The Scottsboro Boys.
That creative partnership may seem surprising at first : Pierce had never worked on a musical before while Kander is a multiple Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner (one award short of an EGOT). But the two have quietly been in contact for years, beginning with their introduction at an Oberlin alumni event. Pierce, a dedicated fiction writer at the time, began sending Kander his short stories to read, and several years later, after the passing of Kander’s career-long partner Fred Ebb, Pierce received a call from Kander with a proposal: a new musical that they would write together, intimate and narrator-driven. A short story onstage.
I sat down with Greg Pierce to talk about The Landing, his first musical with Kander, currently on stage at the Vineyard Theatre through November 10th. (My article on playwrights who became book writers for musicals – featuring Greg Pierce – is in the October ’13 print issue of American Theatre.)
Tell me a little about The Landing.
The Landing is three one-acts. They’re completely different stories but thematically connected. John and I were interested in narrators that were outside the story, characters who can be simultaneously inside and outside the action. John had just finished The Scottsboro Boys and he wanted to do something really small. He said he wanted to do something that could be done in your living room. He knew my short stories, so he said, “What do you think about doing a musical that feels like a short story onstage?”
Does the style of music vary from one act to another?
Yeah. John was interested in different kinds of forms where music keeps going underneath speech, and then someone sings part of a song, and then there’s a scene and they finish the song later on. So it’s almost like an operetta. It doesn’t feel like, “Now we’re in a scene, now we’re in a song.” It’s more of a melding of those styles. There’s a ton of music in the show and music almost goes throughout. It’s dictated by what the moment needs for us. It was always: here we are, this character needs this thing, how do we musicalize that.
Was this your first time writing lyrics?
Yeah. John signed on thinking that he’d be writing lyrics or that we’d be writing lyrics together. We started writing Andra [The Landing’s first act] and I had an idea for a song and wrote a bunch of lyrics. And then I wrote the next one, and John said, “Why don’t you just do lyrics.”
I’m so curious about your collaboration with John Kander. Because he’s such a luminary in musical theater, are you able to confidently put forward ideas?
We’ve worked together five years now, and now it’s very easy. We’re candid with each other.
How do you say, “I don’t think that idea works.” Was that a hurdle to get over?
Yeah it completely was. But there’s no ego when you’re working with John. Ideas go out there and they’re the ideas, not related to am-I-good-or-not. He’s an incredibly good listener and he’s really excited about the ideas that will work best, not who’s coming up with them. We’re starting to have a shorthand. If I come up with something and he’s not feeling it, I can tell. We don’t have to go down that alley which takes a lot of time.
The idea of a short story onstage is interesting.
Yeah, that’s totally fascinating to me. To have a narrator who can comment on the action in a literary, novelistic kind of way. I think there’s space for that and I don’t see it a lot.
Marsha Norman often talks about writing from your “stuff”, which essentially means the emotional context a writer has, the issues a writer grapples with. Do you think The Landing brings out your “stuff”?
I think it does. I don’t know if I can say concretely what those things are, but when I’m in rehearsal, I feel like I’m watching a part of John and a part of me, and that’s one of the most satisfying things about the piece. It’s a real melding of who we are. Somebody came up to me after Slowgirl and said, “I saw [the workshop of] The Landing and I saw Slowgirl…you’re spiritual, aren’t you?” Nobody had ever said that. I’m not religious.
You have a mezuzah on your door, though.
That’s not mine, actually. (laughs) I’m not Jewish. I just got this apartment like six months ago, and that was the former owner’s. But I felt a little funny about it, like, do I take this off? But then I looked down the hallway and there are mezuzahs like every other door, so I’m not quite sure what to do with it.
Well, you can consider your home blessed.
Yeah. Nice, thank you.
Anyway, sorry to interject. So how did you react to that comment? Did that feel flattering?
Totally flattering. But I also don’t want to examine too closely what themes keep appearing [in my work], because I don’t want to be aware of it. I just want to focus on the story.
What are the qualities that you think make someone a good book writer? Are they complementary to the qualities that make someone a good playwright?
I think they’re complementary. It’s a similar scale, which is writing a compelling scene that engages us and leads to the next part of the story. The unsuccessful books that I’ve seen are simply linking songs. I think a great book writer can write a great scene but also knows when to sacrifice that scene to a song.
Since you’re also the lyricist on this project, do you have greater agency to create those emotional highs and lows?
Yeah, if you’re writing the book and lyrics, I think it’s easier to navigate that. And it’s also easier to scrap a scene or to sacrifice the scene because you know you’ll have some hand in that moment.
Do you see book writing as an inherently supportive role?
I’m so interested in book writing, so it doesn’t feel that way to me. I think it’s tricky for those great playwrights [who write the books for musicals] because you have to swallow your ego a bit. And sometimes part of your job is to play the back foot to the music. It has to be a quieter presence. It’s understanding that people might not walk away from a musical thinking, “God, that text was fantastic.”
Can you think of some shows where the book really works?
I love Assassins. Cabaret. West Side Story. But sometimes when I think back on those musicals, if I haven’t seen them in a while, I can’t actually remember if I loved the book itself. I just love the show, the totality. Maybe that’s what makes a musical, that these roles are working in tandem.
I remember [director] Anne Bogart once saying that when you see a great production, you will have no idea what the director did.
Yeah, I think that’s so true. I really do. And sometimes you’ll see a musical with a great book with character moments that sound so specific, and then they start singing and the lyricist could be great with words but not as good with character voices. I think writing lyrics in a character’s voice is very hard. So the story doesn’t carry as well as it does in the book because now we’re in lyric-land where things are clever and there’s intricate rhymes, but they’re not characters anymore.
Tell me about the writing process. Does the method differ from how John worked with Fred Ebb?
How John and I work together is very different from how he worked with Fred. He and Fred were always in the same room. Fred was improvising lyrics and they’d come out of a work session with a song. John and I don’t write like that, mostly because my brain doesn’t work like that. Whoever has the first impulse for a song, whether a melody or a few lines for a chorus, will write that and we’ll bring it in, and play around with it, then take it back to our separate spaces. Also we both have iPhones now which is so amazing. John lives upstate, so he’ll write a snippet and put it on his voice memo and text it to me. And then I can play it over and over and keep experimenting with it.
The Landing is a new musical. Why do you think adaptations have become so much more common for musicals these days?
I think part of the reason is that musicals are strange. It’s strange when people start singing, so when there’s a story you already know, you have that as an anchor. I wish there more opportunities to do an original musical, especially Off-Broadway. Because I see workshops of them and there are so many people who have great ideas and not enough companies that can afford to do it.
But when you know a story, it can be thrilling to see it interpreted musically. One of the great things about musicals is that you can sort of stop time and be with that person in a very emotional place.
Right, in a straight play it’s harder to have that moment just linger.
Annie Baker is very good at letting those moments linger.
Yes! It’s true, she is. Has this project changed your perspective on musicals? What do you think about the viewpoint that musicals are mostly for entertainment?
When I was younger I thought that plays are for this thing and musicals should do this thing. And as I get older, I see the range and now I think there’s room for everything. I think 42nd Street is amazing. Last night I saw Savion Glover. It was totally mind blowing. So I wouldn’t say that musicals need to do one thing. That said, I really love stories and I really love characters. I think there’s a lot of space to explore.
Photo credits: Ben Esner; Robert Caplin